There is a grocery store near my apartment in Brooklyn called the NSA Food Markets (NSA here stands for National Supermarket Association). I joke with my friends that since they’re the NSA, they must know what I’ll be buying and ought to have it bagged and ready for me as soon as I enter.
My little unfunny joke just got unfunnier. The latest of the Snowden revelations is a long story on The Intercept, written by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, about how for years the NSA and FBI spied on Muslim-American leaders, covertly monitoring their e-mail communications under the trumped-up pretext that these men were agents of foreign governments. The Intercept describes a spreadsheet listing 7,485 e-mail addresses (at least 202 of them belonging to US citizens and legal permanent residents) that were monitored between 2002 and 2008. Their story focuses on five prominent Americans on this list: a Navy veteran, a highly respected lawyer, two professors and a civil rights activist.
Besides being male and American, what unites all of these men? It can’t be partisan politics, since they are Democrats and Republicans. It’s not religious conviction, since some are secular and others religious. They are naturalized citizens and first-generation Americans. They have family ties to South Asian, Iran and the Arab world. They have different political outlooks. In fact, the only significant common denominator among the men is their Muslim-sounding names. Don’t believe me? The article lists another document that instructs intelligence personnel on how to properly fill out memos to justify surveillance. In the space where the target’s name would be written, the memo offers a cute placeholder name: “Mohammed Raghead.”
If the surveillance was legal—which the Intercept article argues is questionable for at least one of the five—it was likely authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a notorious piece of legislation that bends as easily as a saw making music. Under FISA, warrants are issued in secret by a judge who hears only the claims put forward by the government. No other side is offered and, because the court is a secret one, what constitutes “probable cause” is impossible for anyone outside the process to determine. What we do know is that in FISA’s thirty-five-year history, the court has approved 35,434 warrants and rejected only twelve.
The fact that government would waste its resources on spying on someone like Faisal Gill (one of the five men named in the story) illustrates how ridiculous or paranoid—or both—this program is. A life-long Republican, Gill is a Navy veteran who joined the Bush administration after 9/11 and worked in the Department of Homeland Security, having obtained a top-level security clearance. He was also the Republican nominee for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007. In 2001, he had worked as a consultant with the now-defunct American Muslim Council, whose founder, Abdurahaman Alamoudi, was arrested in 2003 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and for illegally receiving money from the Libyan government. Alamoudi pleaded guilty, and the anti-Muslim right wing tarred Gill with Alamoudi’s crimes.